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At the height of her afternoon talk show, Oprah Winfrey specialized in surprising fans with unexpected gifts. Last month, “Oprah’s ObsessivesKellie Carter Jackson and Leah Wright Rigueur received a different surprise: a trademark infringement lawsuit from Winfrey’s production company charging that the couple Oprahdemics podcast is using both Oprah’s name and the “O” logo without permission.
Carter Jackson and Rigueur are historians, scholars, and authors; are also, according to a declaration from the head of her podcast’s production company, “Honest, long-time Oprah Winfrey fans.” the premise of Oprahdemics, thrown out last March, is that Winfrey and her cultural impact over time are valuable topics for hosts and their equally well-read guests. The podcast is marketed with a light touch (a “conversation queen study”) and, despite being overtly “unauthorized,” looks like another boost to Oprah’s historical/social profile. So, the result is that it seems that Harpo, Inc. (Oprah’s company) is fighting with its own followers. And really, should a brand ever sue their fans?
Actually, it is a more complicated question than it seems. For context, consider another recent legal dispute involving Netflix and the creators of an unauthorized Bridgerton cleave.
BridgertonOf course, it’s the multiracial, sex-drenched, costume drama escapism sensation Shonda Rhimes who debuted in December 2020. Her immediate fans included Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, musical theater-loving TikTok users in their 20s who quickly set out to offer their own answer to the question, “Okay, what if Bridgerton was it a musical?
The duo wrote their own songs and invited their social media audience to participate and contribute, but took a lot from the series (quoting verbatim dialogue, following plot lines, etc.) and obviously using their name. An album of his songs, The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, won a grammy. Netflix tolerated and even occasionally praised all of this, treating it as some sort of feel-good story and fan tribute that presumably helped the Bridgerton brand more widely.
Things soured when Barlow and Bear decided to put on a live production at the Kennedy Center; Netflix (which supports an official live production called The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience) said that the creators of the musical would have to pay a license to put on their show. According to the company, he offered such a license, and Barlow and Bear presumably turned it down, hence the demand.
But, in a surprising twist, many Bridgerton Fans have sided with Netflix. (Or maybe they were rooting for Rhimes or Julia Quinn, the author of the novels behind the series. “I was flattered and delighted when they started,” Quinn fixed. “However, there is a difference between composing on TikTok and recording and performing for commercial purposes.”) According to a Board abstract From the resulting social media drama, the online mob mocked the duo and sympathized with Netflix wanting to protect their intellectual property. In short, many seemed to believe that Netflix supported them as long as it could, but ultimately they had no choice but to sue the world’s most famous. Bridgerton Stans.
Which brings us back to Oprah. In particular, Harpo is not seeking monetary damages and is not asking that the hosts and their production company stop making their show. Instead, he claims that the name and branding of the show imply that it is approved by Oprah (and, in a sense, benefits from that impression).
In other words, Harpo is trying to thread the needle of making his case that Oprahdemics he has crossed a specific line, but doing it without looking like a bully. After all, a brand that does not defend its trademarks is taking a huge risk: a history of allowing others to borrow or reuse its intellectual property without consequence can set a precedent in the eyes of the law, making it difficult to protect that property against further misuse. .
And as much as suing fans might be a bad image in the court of public opinion, the consequences aren’t always that dire. When JK Rowling successfully sued the creator of an unauthorized guide to her Harry Potter series, even its author he said he’d still be a superfan in the same way.
Oprahdemics producer Roulette Productions has said that the podcast “comes from a place of both profound admiration and critical thought,” cast “He has been committed to the Harpo team for some time.” The various parties have been silent since the lawsuit was made public, but perhaps there could be a deal, or even an opportunity.
There, until now, it has been only a Oprahdemics season, about a dozen episodes released between March and June of this year, and a couple of live events. Now, in a peculiar twist on the so-called oprah effect (read: the idea that when Winfrey highlighted a brand, product, or book on her show, it quickly took off), the podcast has gotten more attention than ever. This might be a good time to treat this entire episode as a branding event and announce a new season, even with a changed name.
Harpo, of course, has a different agenda: to send a message about what he sees as the boundaries around the Oprah brand. And he lets even well-intentioned fans know the possible consequences of crossing those lines: You get a lawsuit, and your get a lawsuit, and your Get a lawsuit!”